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By Brenda S. Cox

“We do not much like Mr. Cooper’s new sermons;–they are fuller of Regeneration & Conversion than ever–with the addition of his zeal in the cause of the Bible Society” –Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, Sept. 8, 1816

Last month we talked about Austen’s first cousins, particularly Edward Cooper, son of Jane’s mother’s sister. He became a clergyman like Jane’s father and Edward’s father. Edward was a strong Evangelical, and he and Jane did not always see eye to eye.

Evangelicals in the Church of England

The Evangelical* movement in the Church of England started early in the 1700s. While some evangelicals left the Church of England, others stayed within it. (We use a capital “E” for this movement within the Church of England at that time.) In general, evangelicals stress the centrality of the Bible and of Christ’s death on the cross to redeem sinful people, the need for a personal conversion experience, and Christians’ responsibility to actively lead others toward Christ and do good in the world. These are the messages Edward Cooper and other Evangelicals preached. 

The most famous Evangelical of Austen’s time was William Wilberforce. Wilberforce and other Christians, especially Evangelicals, led the fight against the slave trade, supported campaigns to educate the poor in England, and much more. (While modern evangelicals may be associated with certain political stances, evangelicals in Austen’s England were associated with these issues instead: education for the poor, the campaign against the slave trade and slavery, and others.)

Cooper’s Sermons and Jane Austen’s Responses

In Jane Austen’s time, many clergymen published their sermons. Sermons were popular reading, as well as providing preaching material for other clergymen. Austen enjoyed reading books of sermons. Cooper published a number of volumes of his sermons. Apparently, though, Jane and Cassandra didn’t like them much. In 1809 (Jan. 17), she commented,

“Miss M. conveys to us a third volume of sermons, from Hamstall, just published, and which we are to like better than the two others; they are professedly practical, and for the use of country congregations.”

This was Edward Cooper’s Practical and Familiar Sermons Designed for Parochial and Domestic Instruction(meaning for reading at home and for preaching to churches), first published in 1809. The earlier volumes were one in 1803 criticizing the practice of the militia drilling on Sundays (a day of rest), and then Sermons, Chiefly Designed to Elucidate Some of the Leading Doctrines of the Gospel (1804).

Where did Jane differ from those “leading doctrines” of Evangelical preaching? Evangelicals taught that people needed a conscious, personal conversion experience, a regeneration or rebirth, to become true Christians. Other Anglicans believed that growth in faith was gradual through life, beginning with a person’s baptism as an infant; this was probably Austen’s belief.  Both groups believed that throughout life the person needed to trust in Christ, repent when they sinned, and ask God’s help to live a good life. Edward Cooper’s hymn, “Father of Heaven,” which is still sung today, asks God for His “pardoning love.”

Cover of Edward Cooper’s Practical and Familiar Sermons, which Jane Austen was to “like better than the two others.”

This theological disagreement partly explains Jane’s reaction to a later book which includes two of Edward’s sermons. It’s been speculated that the “we” here might refer to the rest of her family, perhaps to her mother and brother’s opinion more than to her own. But still she does include herself:

“We do not much like Mr. Cooper’s new sermons;–they are fuller of Regeneration & Conversion than ever–with the addition of his zeal in the cause of the Bible Society” (Sept. 8, 1816).

This refers to Two Sermons Preached . . . at Wolverhampton Preparatory to the Establishment of a Bible Institution (1816). I was surprised to find that these sermons do not use the word regeneration, and conversion is used only once (with convert used two further times). However, the concepts are implied.

Cooper does talk about the world’s need for the gospel and for the Bible. Jane Austen apparently did not disagree with these goals. In her third prayer, she wrote,

“May thy [God’s] mercy be extended over all Mankind, bringing the Ignorant to the knowledge of thy Truth, awakening the Impenitent, touching the Hardened.”

Cover of Edward Cooper’s sermons for the Bible Society, which Austen found too full of “regeneration and conversion.”

The SPCK and the Bible Society

So, why would Austen object to Cooper’s supporting the Bible Society? She and her family supported a different institution that distributed the Bible, the SPCK. In fact, Jane herself contributed half a guinea, a substantial amount of her income, to this organization in 1813.

The SPCK, or Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, is a Church of England organization that published and sold Christian literature at that time. However, many felt that they were not supplying enough Bibles in different languages (specifically Welsh, at the beginning), and so the British and Foreign Bible Society was formed.

The Bible Society included both Anglicans and Dissenters (people in other denominations). Because of this, they published and distributed only Bibles, with no commentary (which might support one set of doctrines over another). The SPCK produced the Book of Common Prayer and other materials explaining the Bible from an Anglican perspective. There was some tension or competition between these two groups.

Both societies formed auxiliary groups in various areas to support their work. According to Irene Collins, in 1813, both organizations set up branches in Basingstoke, in the Austens’ part of the country. James Austen, Jane’s brother, organized and spoke at the initial meeting of the SPCK. The Lefroy family, old friends of the Austens’, were leaders of the rival Bible Society auxiliary started at almost the same time.

A copy of James’s speech for the SPCK has been preserved. He said that the SPCK was better than the Bible Society, because along with the Bible it distributed commentaries and the Book of Common Prayer (the “Liturgy”). He explained,

“It [the SPCK] not only puts the Bible in a poor man’s hand, but provides him with the best means of understanding it.”

However, he also said that those supporting the Bible Society did so from “the purest and best of motives,” and encouraged them to support both organizations. He complimented the Bible Society, saying its “exertions” had produced “extreme good.” He called for a spirit of unity in the area and a spirit of “candour”—which meant assuming the best of one another. The speech is gentle and conciliatory; a good model for today’s controversies.

Jane Austen and the Evangelicals

So, Jane Austen had some disagreements with her Evangelical cousin Edward Cooper, and didn’t much like his sermons. However, Cooper had an Evangelical friend in neighbouring Yoxall, Rev. Thomas Gisborne. Both Cooper and Gisborne were involved with Wilberforce in working for the abolition of the slave trade. 

Austen did enjoy Gisborne’s work. In 1805, she told Cassandra,

“I am glad you recommended ‘Gisborne,’ for having begun, I am pleased with it, and I had quite determined not to read it” (Aug. 30, 1805).

The book was probably An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex

In Austen’s letters, she made two specific mentions of the Evangelicals. On Jan. 24, 1809, she wrote, “I do not like the Evangelicals.” She was telling her sister that she did not want to read a new book by Hannah More, a popular Evangelical author. She went on to say, “Of course I shall be delighted when I read it, like other people,” so she doesn’t seem to be very serious. My guess is that she did not like More’s style, which is didactic, clearly teaching lessons through her story. Austen preferred to tell a good story and let readers come to their own conclusions.

Later, on Nov. 18, 1814, she had a serious discussion with her niece Fanny Knight about marrying a man who was leaning toward Evangelicalism. She wrote, “I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling must be happiest & safest. . . . don’t be frightened by the idea of his acting more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others.” So at that point, though she was not Evangelical herself, she admired them.

Austen’s beloved brother Henry later became an Evangelical preacher himself. But he still wrote about his sister, in the introduction to Northanger Abbey and Persuasion:

“She was thoroughly religious and devout . . . On serious [religious] subjects she was well-instructed, both by reading and meditation, and her opinions accorded strictly with those of our Established Church.”

While some have claimed that he was exaggerating here, at the time being “religious” was not necessarily popular. Jane Austen did not always agree with her cousin Edward’s theology or style of writing, but it seems to me that she was serious about her faith, as he was.

Brenda S. Cox blogs on Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen. She has written a book called Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England, which she hopes will be available by the end of this year.

*Note that “Evangelical” and “evangelism” are two different things, though people sometimes get them confused. Evangelicals, the focus of the article above, were and are groups of Christians with certain common beliefs. Evangelism  means people sharing their religious beliefs with other people.

For Further Reading

Edward Cooper, Jane Austen’s Evangelical Cousin, Part 1

Edward Cooper, Wolverhampton Sermons, Jan. 1, 1816.

Jocelyn Harris, “Jane Austen and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,” Persuasions 34: 134-139. 

Irene Collins, “’Too Much Zeal for the Bible Society: Jane Austen, Her Family, and the Religious Quarrels of Her Time,” Jane Austen Society Reports, Collected Reports Vol. 6 (2001-2005): 21-38. This article explains the rivalry and cooperation between the Bible Society and the S.P.C.K. in Austen’s community, and Jane’s theological differences with her cousin Edward Cooper. 

Gaye King, “Jane Austen’s Staffordshire Cousin: Edward Cooper and His Circle,” Persuasions 1993 

Gaye King, “Visiting Edward Cooper,” Persuasions 1987 

Donald Greene, “Hamstall Ridware: A Neglected Austen Setting,” Persuasions 1985 (Includes a photo of the rectory where Jane and her family visited Edward and his family)

Come and Visit Edward Cooper, Jane Austen’s Evangelical Cousin,” Jane Austen House Museum blog, Sept. 17, 2012, Edward’s portrait 

Edward Cooper as a hymn writer 

Edward Cooper’s letter to Jane April 6, 1817 (article also includes commentary on the letter)

Jane Austen in the Midlands,” scroll down for a section on Cooper. 

’Cruel Comfort’: A Reading of the Theological Critique in Sense and Sensibility,” Kathleen James-Cavan (springboards from Jane’s comment on Edward Cooper into the ideas in S&S) Persuasions On-Line 32.2 (2012) 

Other Sources

Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen: A Family Record, 2nd ed. (p. 262 says Henry Austen became an Evangelical clergyman)

Deirdre Le Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th ed.

Laura Dabundo, Jane Austen: A Companion

Irene Collins, “Displeasing Pictures of Clergymen,” Persuasions 18 (1996): 110.

Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy

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By Brenda S. Cox

“I like first Cousins to be first Cousins, & interested about each other.”—Jane Austen, letter to Anna Lefroy, Nov. 29, 1814

Austen’s First Cousins

Jane Austen was closely connected to her three first cousins: Eliza, Edward, and Jane. (She had additional cousins from her father’s half-brother, William Hampson Walter, though she doesn’t seem to have been as close to them.)

Eliza: Her father’s sister Philadelphia had one daughter, lively Eliza Hancock de Feuillide. Eliza, whose first husband was guillotined in the French Revolution, later married Jane’s brother Henry.

Jane: Jane’s mother’s sister (also named Jane) married a clergyman, the Reverend Dr. Edward Cooper. They had two children, Edward and another Jane. That Jane, Jane Leigh Cooper, went away to school for a time with Jane and Cassandra Austen. Her letter home from Southampton told their parents that the girls were seriously ill with typhus. Mrs. Austen and Mrs. Cooper came and took them home. The girls all survived, but, sadly, Mrs. Cooper caught the illness and died. Jane and Edward Cooper spent a lot of time with the Austen family. Jane was even married at Steventon, to a naval captain, Captain Williams, who was later knighted. Charles Austen served under him in the Navy. Tragically, Jane Cooper, by then called Lady Williams, died in a carriage accident in 1798.

Edward: Edward Cooper, Jane Cooper’s brother, became a clergyman like his father. He is mentioned frequently in Jane Austen’s letters. In her first two existing letters (Jan. 9 and 14, 1796), she talks about his visit to Steventon with his young son and daughter.

Edward Cooper, Clergyman

Many of Jane Austen’s friends and relatives were clergymen (estimated at over a hundred, including of course her father and two of her brothers). She held strong opinions on church livings. When Edward got his living, she wrote (Jan. 21, 1799):

Yesterday came a letter to my mother from Edward Cooper to announce, not the birth of a child, but of a living; for Mrs. Leigh [a relative, the Hon. Mary Leigh, of Stoneleigh] has begged his acceptance of the Rectory of Hamstall-Ridware in Staffordshire, vacant by Mr. Johnson’s death. We collect from his letter that he means to reside there, in which he shows his wisdom.

Staffordshire is a good way off [about 140 miles]; so we shall see nothing more of them till, some fifteen years hence, the Miss Coopers are presented to us, fine, jolly, handsome, ignorant girls. The living is valued at £140 a year, but perhaps it may be improvable. How will they be able to convey the furniture of the dressing-room so far in safety?

Our first cousins seem all dropping off very fast. One is incorporated into the family [Eliza de Feuillide], another dies [Jane Cooper, Lady Williams], and a third [Edward Cooper] goes into Staffordshire.  [Brackets added.]

Church of St. Michael and All Angels, Hamstall Ridware, where Jane Austen’s cousin Edward Cooper served as rector.
Bs0u10e01, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Jane commented that Edward intended “to reside” at his living, which showed “his wisdom.” At this time, many clergy hired curates to serve their livings rather than residing in them and doing the work themselves. In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram makes a strong statement about residing at one’s living:

“A parish has wants and claims which can be known only by a clergyman constantly resident, and which no proxy can be capable of satisfying to the same extent. Edmund might, in the common phrase, do the duty of Thornton, that is, he might read prayers and preach, without giving up Mansfield Park: he might ride over every Sunday, to a house nominally inhabited, and go through divine service; he might be the clergyman of Thornton Lacey every seventh day, for three or four hours, if that would content him. But it will not. He knows that human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey; and that if he does not live among his parishioners, and prove himself, by constant attention, their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.”–Mansfield Park, ch. 25

Austen also mentioned that Edward might be able to “improve” his living. That means he might increase his income by negotiating for higher tithe payments from the farmers or leasing extra farmland, as Austen’s father did. Edward Ferrars’s living in Sense and Sensibility is also “capable of improvement” (ch. 39). Cooper added to his income later by becoming rector of nearby Yoxall (much like George Austen, who served two adjacent parishes).

In 1801 Austen said Edward wrote to her after his wife Caroline had a baby.

I have heard twice from Edward on the occasion, & his letters have each been exactly what they ought to be–chearful & amusing.–He dares not write otherwise to me, but perhaps he might be obliged to purge himself from the guilt of writing Nonsense by filling his shoes with whole pease for a week afterwards.–Mrs. G. [Mrs. Girle, Caroline Cooper’s grandmother] has left him £100–his Wife and son £500 each. (Jan. 21, 1801)

It appears that while Jane thought of Edward as too serious, he was willing to write “Nonsense” to her.

Later that month, Edward invited the Austens to come visit his family at the parsonage in Hamstall Ridware. However, Jane says, “at present we greatly prefer the sea to all our relations” (Jan. 25, 1801). Her family had already visited Edward in 1799, when he was a curate at Harpsden. The Austens did visit the Coopers at Hamstall Ridware for five weeks in the summer of 1806, after going to Stoneleigh Abbey. 

Interior of Edward Cooper’s Hamstall Ridware church;
John Salmon via Wikimedia commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Jane seemed to have trouble keeping track of Edward’s children. Some of them died quite young. In 1811 she wrote, “It was a mistake of mine, my dear Cassandra, to talk of a tenth child at Hamstall. I had forgot there were but eight already” (May 29).

In 1808, when Jane’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Knight, died, Jane wrote, “I have written to Edward Cooper, & hope he will not send one of his Letters of cruel comfort to my poor Brother” (Oct. 15). We don’t know what sort of “cruel comfort” Edward had written in the past. The one still-existing letter from Edward to Jane was written in 1817 and sounds heartfelt and kind. His friend and neighbor John Gisborne wrote that Edward was a great comfort to him in his son’s final illness. But perhaps Edward had taken the opportunity to preach some of his Evangelical ideas in a letter, and Jane and her family did not agree.

Edward Cooper believed and preached an Evangelical interpretation of the Bible. Many of his sermons were published in books, which were reprinted and read for many years, in a long series of editions. So even if Jane didn’t care much for them, others did!

Next month in Part 2, we’ll look at what Edward’s Evangelical ideas were, what Jane Austen thought of his sermons, and why.

Brenda S. Cox writes on Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen. She has written a book called Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England, which she hopes will be available by the end of this year.

For Further Reading

Edward Cooper: Jane Austen’s Evangelical Cousin, Part 2

Visiting Edward Cooper,” Gaye King, Persuasions 1987

Hamstall Ridware: A Neglected Austen Setting,” Donald Greene, Persuasions 1985 (Includes a photo of the rectory where Jane and her family visited Edward and his family)

Come and Visit Edward Cooper, Jane Austen’s Evangelical Cousin,” Jane Austen House Museum blog, Sept. 17, 2012 (includes Edward Cooper’s portrait)

Edward Cooper’s letter to Jane April 6, 1817 (article also includes commentary on the letter) 

Jane Austen in the Midlands,” scroll down for a section on Cooper.

Other Sources

Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen: A Family Record, 2nd ed.

Deirdre Le Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th ed.

Laura Dabundo, Jane Austen: A Companion

Irene Collins, “Displeasing Pictures of Clergymen,” Persuasions 18 (1996): 110. Collins says Austen’s correspondence refers to at least 90 clergymen, and her biographers could add many more. 

Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy

John Gisborne and his daughter E. N. A., Brief Memoir of the Life of John Gisborne, Esq., to which are added, Extracts from his Diary (London: Whittaker, 1852), 114-115, 128, 227. 

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